Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Key

If you like a living author, it's a treat to find his/her latest work by accident or because of a recent review.  They can only produce so many (excepting the word factories like Patterson or Roberts -- yeech), so it's also serendipity when someone recommends one of their favorites and widens your scope, as Claire was so kind to do a few years ago when she said I'd like T.C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain.  I sure did, and found something else I like:  authors who use real people, places and events in thin disguise (known as roman a clef, that is, a novel with a key).   If you do not know a place well, the story and a map will expand your knowledge, and if you do, it's innocent fun to picture the exact place where the action occurs.
In Talk Talk, Mr. Boyle called the Santa Barbara, California setting San Marcos (actually a neighborhood east of downtown) and I enjoyed trying to develop my "key" to figure out the other names.
The author lives in a 1910 Frank Lloyd Wright house in Montecito, adjacent to Santa Barbara, and couldn't resist the pull to leave the local scene for once to novelize Wright's notorious (not-so-) private life in The Women.  All person and place names were actual, and I learned a great deal about the first Taliesin in Wisconsin.  If it had been done in roman a clef mode, I'd have been busy for a week tracking down who and what was actually what.
In his latest, When the Killing's Done, Boyle also goes full factual, and there was no research needed; I added my own motion picture to the script as I read along, proud to say I knew every location due to extensive perambulations in the area.  And the unavoidable seasickness during the choppy trip across the channel to Santa Cruz Island -- first hand experience there also.  (A hidden gem -- he has Tim the biologist wear his own favorite red Converse sneakers.)
Earl Hamner called Schulyer, Virginia, Walton's Mountain, and the University of Richmond, Boatwright University -- locals know Boatwright is the name of the treed, winding lane leading into the U. of R.  No one took any offense to his use of real people and places, because of affectionate and nostalgic treatment.  Other authors who are more frank don't exactly thrill the locals when they appear in print as they are, rather than how they would like to be remembered.  It took a number of years before John Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas forgave him for portraying the misbehavior of the paisanos in Tortilla Flat and the ranch owners in particular did not approve of any positive view of the strikers in In Dubious Battle.  He did a good deed, though, by turning the real Ed Ricketts, who died far too young, into Doc in Cannery Row.  Ed would have been forgotten otherwise, and that would have been a sad thing.
Respectable society right here in Harrisburg got a skewering in John O' Hara's 1949 A Rage To Live.  Avoiding libel (a main reason for the clef treatment), he renamed everything and everyone (the city became Fort Penn), but the locals knew exactly who he meant.  They say Harrisburg is just Altoona with the Capitol in the middle of it, but there was and is a sufficiently large cast of political, professional and business socialites and heirs to populate a big story of misdeeds; why O'Hara set another, Ourselves to Know, in the hamlet of Lykens (he called it Lyons), is a head-scratcher.  I've been through there a few times, and it makes Mineral, Virginia, look like an exciting metropolis.
Who employed living people and geography more extensively than Jack Kerouac?  City Lights Bookstore has fortunately published three editions of the Beat Atlas, one each for New York and San Francisco and one state by state, biographical dictionaries which provide information about those in or related to the Beat movement.  With these resources and the Internet available, people and places who appeared under different names in various of Kerouac's books can be identified.  LuAnne Henderson, Neal Cassady's teenage first wife (called Mary Lou in On the Road), if still alive at 81 will probably be sought out when the movie version is released soon, with popular (miscast, for sure) Kristen Stewart portraying her.
I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I did not realize so many characters in Aldous Huxley's novels were based on luminaries in his circle such as D.H. Lawrence.  So, down to the basement to find those old dusty volumes, and then get to working on the "key."

1 comment:

  1. We are all famous at some point, whether it is recorded or not. So while you are in the archives digging around, try to figure out who Batman is for Rusty. His 14 year old self wants to know.